Getting married in South Korea is something that’s almost considered a social responsibility.
Since the 1990s, the South Korean government has had to create policies to encourage Korean men, initially those in rural areas who could not find a match, to marry women from overseas.
But the lives of these “marriage migrant” women are not easy. Some face stigma once they move to South Korea, and there have been reports of domestic violence and abuse.
Many of these women come to South Korea without even knowing the language, but despite this, they are carving out a significant place for themselves in Korean society.
These are some of their stories.
The police officer
Kim Hana first met her husband on a blind date arranged by her aunty in Nepal.
He had flown over from South Korea, and within three days they were discussing marriage. They moved to Korea that same year.
According to her, it’s not uncommon for young Nepalese people to want to go overseas – whether for marriage or work – as there are limited opportunities in Nepal.
Fast forward 11 years, and she is now a police officer, one of few who are not ethnically Korean.
“There may be people who think I’m not a good enough cop compared to a native Korean person… but I don’t have time to think about that,” said the 31-year-old, who changed her Nepali name (Samjhana Rai) when she became a naturalised citizen.
“When I’m wearing my uniform and have a gun on my waist, I don’t think anybody has a problem with me not ‘looking Korean’,” she says.
She works as a Foreign Affairs Officer, acting as a bridge between the Nepalese and Korean community.
The number of women who have come to Korea and married Korean men has more than doubled in recent years, from 120,110 in 2007 to 287,298 in 2019, according to the government-run Multicultural Family Support Centre.
But stereotypes that East and South Asian migrant wives are mail order brides or who are “sold” to their husbands still exist, as does discrimination.
“I remember, when my son was little, getting on the bus and a man shouted at me, ‘Vietnam, come sit here!'” Kim Hana said. Vietnamese women make up about a third – and the biggest percentage – of foreign wives in South Korea.
Kim Hana however, has largely been able to shake this off – and feels Korean society has made progress in including more people from different cultural backgrounds.
Since 2008, the Korean government has established multicultural support centres.
“Now there is a large foreign community and I’ve met so many different people while doing my job,” she said.
The migrant rights activist
Won Ok Kum first met her husband in her home country of Vietnam.
Today, the farmer’s daughter holds a master’s degree in law administration and previously held the title of the honorary mayor of Seoul.
Last year, she even ran to become an MP for the ruling liberal Democratic Party, one of few people of non-Korean ethnicity to do so – but she lost.
Despite this, she’s continuing her work and is campaigning for a law which would amp up the monitoring of discrimination against migrant workers.
A turning point for her was when she helped Vietnamese workers who had been arrested for striking over their working conditions.
“In Vietnam I could never have imagined holding those in power to account, but seeing those workers win the case, I realised in South Korea we could make real change,” she said.
Despite this she has met her share of setbacks. Recently, when trying to help migrant workers get their visas extended, an immigration officer refused to address her using customary honorific terms.
“If I was being treated like that, imagine how other migrants are being treated,” she says.
When Kyla* arrived in Seoul from the Philippines in 1999 at the age of 24, she couldn’t communicate with her Korean husband. She had never been abroad and this was her first relationship.
They had been matched through the Unification Church in the Philippines, but after a few years her marriage broke down.
He started drinking and finally he left the family home, cutting off financial support for her and their three children.
“He asked for a divorce, but divorce isn’t the done thing in the Philippines, so I initially refused,” she says.
Left without support, Kyla sought work as a teacher.
“I would work long hours. But then sometimes I didn’t bring home enough money to cover all the bills,” she explains.
Today, Kyla has moved on and works as a mentor for migrant wives, while also translating for the police and immigration services.
She tells her mentees they are not just marrying into a family but also a culture. Kyla adds that the support given by the multicultural centres, which are now increasingly including men in the conversation, has also proven helpful.
“Korean men get educated on what it means to start a multicultural family, that didn’t used to happen,” she says.
Looking ahead, Kyla says she wants her children to have the same opportunities as other Korean children.
Her daughter is training to be a K-Pop star, her middle son started work at an IT company and her eldest son is doing his compulsory military service in the Navy.
“I have done everything I can to [help] my children to flourish,” she says.
*Name has been changed.